Civil War Music Review

by Jonah Begone

This is an article I wrote for a unit newsletter back in '85 or '86, during the end of the 33 1/3 LP days and when I was still writing serious articles. Many of these recordings are available as reissues on CD and cassette. Some are never to be reissued, a good thing! Since this article and the PBS series a wealth of Civil War music has been recorded, some of it so-so, some of it excellent. Anyway, here's the article for the compleat collector. - Jonah

My preference is for classical music, but I've always noticed a directness and sincerity in Civil War music that puts it on a level with America's finest folk traditions. It's also varied: the lyrics can express overblown Victorian sentimentality ("Just Before the Battle, Mother," "Faded Coat of Blue"), or simple heartfelt reactions to the horrors of war ("The Battle of Shiloh," "The Rebel Soldier"). Some tunes, like "The Bonnie Blue Flag" and "The Battle Cry of Freedom" still inspire, and the soldier's sense of comedy is well represented in songs like "Goober Peas" and "Day of Jubilo."

There is a large amount of Civil War music available on records -- 29 LP's at last count -- and most emphasize the more commonly known tunes mentioned above. Some records are still "in print" and many others are available through local library systems. If you don`t mind breaking copyright laws, they can be recorded onto tape and added to your collection. Here's a critical review of some of the more commonly heard albums.

Probably the best single-album collection is the excellently produced and performed "Songs of the Civil War" by the National Geographic Society (record #00789). It comes with informative liner notes on the individual songs, an illustrated booklet, and it technically sounds better than most of the recording in this survey. It can be purchased from the Smithsonian in Washington for about $12.00. It is worth buying.

If you enjoy hard-core bluegrass and country, you'll probably enjoy a rather obscure collection by "The Smith Brothers" (International Award Series AK-171). It contains the catchiest version of "Cumberland Gap" on LP and the whiniest performance of "All Quiet on the Potomac Tonight."

A personal favorite of mine is the two record collection by Tennessee Ernie Ford, long out of print but available from many libraries. (Capitol ST-1539 and ST-1540) While sounding more 1960's than 1860's at times, Ernie's basso profundo voice is simply awesome in "Virginia's Bloody Soil," and he also does a very nice version of "The Marching Song of the First Arkansas," which is really just the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for colored troops. A classic!

Still in print and therefore much more easily obtained is "Who Shall Rule this American Nation?," a collection of the Civil War era works of Henry Clay Work (Nonesuch H1317). This is a very listenable assortment of patriotic tunes, Temperance songs and social commentaries arranged in an authentic Gilbert and Sullivan-like operetta style, and performed by the Camerata Chorus of Washington. Their versions of "Grafted Into the Army" and "Poor Kitty Popcorn, or The Soldier's Pet" will be floating around in your head for days... Best of all, this is a budget LP!

A real find is the Heirloom records "The Civil War through its Songs and Ballads" (HL 503). This LP contains rarely recorded songs such as "Roll, Alabama, Roll" and General Lee`s Wooing" (an alternate version of "Maryland, my Maryland" with some really grim lyrics about the battle of Antietam). Interspersed with the songs are some interesting readings.

A real treat is the two record set "Music of the Civil War" by Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble on Mercury Golden Imports #SRI 2-77011. It is culled from an ambitious four record set produced in 1959 and features virtuoso performances from original arrangements played on original instruments. Really worth buying! If you chance to find the original recordings, buy them. They contain nifty sound reenactments of Pickett's Charge complete with musketry, dying men's groans and a reactivated New Jersey artillery battery!

Somewhat less than virtuoso performances of original arrangements on original instruments can be heard on any one of the "First Brigade Band" series, available at the Gettysburg Battlefield Book Store. While 100% authentic, the occasional missed notes and carefree tonality will kill the houseplants!

The most recently released LP is "Civil War Guitar" (Legend records GLC-6031), available at practically any of the U.S. Park Service visitors centers. The title pretty much says it all; the arrangements consist of guitar, banjo and an occasional atonal harmonica. This collection includes a very obscure tune called "Ida Red." If you play guitar this album can probably help you learn some Civil War tunes...

If you can imagine Benny Hill doing an imitation of an American Southerner, you have a fair idea of what the Confederate tunes on "The Blue and the Gray -- Songs of the American Civil War" (Decca DL 74047) sounds like. This record was made from a British Broadcasting Corporation radio show, and is possibly the worst Civil War record around! Fortunately, it's long out of print.

The uneven Mormon Tabernacle Choir collection of "Songs of the North and South" may still be found in record stores. It combines beautiful renditions of "Kathleen Malvoureen" and "He's Gone Away" with the worst possible arrangements of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground." Still worth hearing.

For those of you that insist on having it all there is the 50 song, 4 LP collection by the Musical Heritage of America performed by Tom Blazer and friends. Still in print (although you'll probably need to special order it), it costs nearly $30.00. It contains multiple versions (Northern and Southern) of all the basic repertoire, and some unusual tunes like "Treasury Rats" and "Run to Jesus," the latter with lyrics by Frederick Douglass. It is a good reference collection, but the mostly guitar and voice format is a little tiresome.

I saved the best for last: the Columbia Records "Legacy of the Civil War." This 2 LP set comes packed in a blue binder with a U.S. flag for the Northern songs and a gray binder with a Rebel flag for the Southern songs. Each comes with a fully illustrated booklet. I last saw the Northern collection (the most commonly available) in the Smithsonian for $25.00, which is darned expensive for a single record! I'm pretty sure there are cheaper places to get it, though. These are fully orchestrated in the opulent style of the 1860's by some fellow named Hales and are very, very listenable. I don't want to get into too many superlatives, but the settings and performances are just unerringly "right" and you'll probably find the arrangements floating around in your head for days, like I do. Contains the best possible version of "The Invalid Corps." A memorable collection.

All of the recordings reviewed above are versions of actual Civil War era songs. There is still some more Civil War music on record worth hearing, however: classical music written on Civil War themes. I'm not aware of much of this, but two pieces come to mind...

The first is the beginning movement of "Three Places in New England" by the pioneering American composer Charles Ives. The piece is called "The St. Gaudens at Boston Common" and is a tone poem about the sculpture by Auguste St. Gaudens in the Boston Common Park. It commemorates Colonel Robert Shaw's Colored Regiment, the 54th Massachusetts.

The sculpture depicts the colored troops on the march, and the music reflects this with a slow, plodding meter. The overall mood of the piece is contemplative and perhaps a bit depressed, with the strings playing slightly dissonant chords and the woodwinds quoting "The Battle Cry of Freedom" in a minor key. This is highly impressionistic music, and evokes the spirit of the Yankee infantry soldier better than anything ever written!

The other classical Civil War piece is also by Ives and is the "Decoration Day" movement from the "Holidays" symphony. This piece is more typically Ivesian in that it features loud dissonances and simultaneous music of different key and rhythm (simulating the sound of two brass bands marching up the street during the town parade).

So -- there's a wealth of Civil War and Civil War inspired music to listen to. You may need to develop "nineteenth-century ears" to appreciate it but it is definitely worth listening to!